The adventures of Hamza: Mughal art the V&A

An exhibition of rare Mughal paintings, ten years in the making

In 1881 Caspar Purdon Clarke, the first Keeper of the Indian Department at the South Kensington Museum (the precursor to the V&A) was strolling past a curiosity shop in Kashmir when he made a remarkable discovery. The windows of the shop were covered with brightly painted and exquisitely detailed sheets. Although Purdon Clarke did not immediately know what they were, he recognised their exceptional quality and purchased them for his museum. They turned out to be pages from the 16th-century Hamzanama, a cycle of paintings chronicling the adventures and Islamic missionising of Hamza, a partly historical character based on the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. The cycle, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar, originally comprised 1,400 paintings on cotton with Persian text on the back and was worked on by some 100 Indian and Persian artists, gilders, bookbinders and calligraphers. Back in London the Mughal paintings bought by Purdon Clarke were greatly admired by among others, William Morris, who praised the detailed treatment of the foliage and recommended the works as excellent studies for tapestry and wall-paper design. Today these paintings are incredibly rare: only 200 survive and the fate of the remaining 1,200 is a mystery. The largest group is in the collection of the MAK-Austrian Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna purchased in 1873 at the Vienna World Fair. Ten years in the making, this exhibition (6 March-8 June) has been organised by the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC where it opened last year. It reunites 68 paintings from the Hamzanama for the first time ever and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue by John Seyller, professor of art history at the University of Vermont and curator of the show. The show travels to the Museum Rietberg in Zurich (28 June-20 October) (above, “Arghan Dev brings the chest of armour to Hamza”).

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 134 March 2003